Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page



11.30 am

Asked By Lord Dykes

11 Jun 2009 : Column 742

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, in view of earlier comments, I am substituting for my noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown, who is abroad, in answering this Question. It will be the last time I answer Foreign Office Questions for the foreseeable future, but who knows what opportunities may open up in a fourth Labour term? We remain deeply concerned about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe—harassment of human rights defenders, arbitrary arrests and intimidation, repressive legislation and the lack of press freedom.

The inclusive Government have, in the global political agreement, committed to ending human rights abuses and violence and to restoring the rule of law. We and the international community continue to urge the inclusive Government to respect these commitments and adhere to international standards.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, the Minister sounded like a permanent Foreign Office Minister in his reply, for which I thank him. Does he agree that this matter is deeply shocking news? It is on a par with Mike Thompson’s tragic BBC reports about a country that is now ruined, devastated and in a terrible state as a result of the self-indulgent madness and brutality of the government majority party. Now that it is a joint Government, will the Minister reassure the House that the UK will make every effort, following the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, on the previous Question, closely to monitor these matters, especially with the United States, other EU countries, particularly Germany, Spain and France, and leading Commonwealth countries to make sure that these democratically-elected politicians who join the joint Government are not threatened in this way?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation and crisis in Zimbabwe and we will do all in our power to relieve that position. We are doing two things in particular. The House will appreciate that the UK is one of the largest donors to Zimbabwe. There is some improvement in the economy. Public officials are being paid, which was not the case a short while ago. The Zimbabweans are sending to London the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, who has still to obtain a visa, to meet our ministerial team. We will be pressing on these issues and others and we are involved in making as constructive an effort as we can for Zimbabwe under its inclusive Government to recover from the appalling disasters of the past.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the root problem behind the continued farm seizures, as well as the death threats on MDC members of the Government of National Unity, stems from the Youth Brigade, which is controlled by the Central Intelligence Organisation, which is controlled by several of the military chiefs? Until that is tackled, the threats will continue. On a more positive note, three months ago the country suffered from hyper-inflation, with a 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar note being worth 20 pence. However, since the MDC took control of the Ministry of Finance, the country now has deflation with food back on the supermarket shelves.

11 Jun 2009 : Column 743

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I accept the first point of the noble Lord’s contribution; namely, that there are institutional reflections of what has been an unlimited dictatorship over very many years, capable of the most appalling affronts to human rights, which will need to be eradicated for the country to develop along any lines of international acceptability. We must place a great deal of hope in the inclusive Government making progress in these areas; hence the meetings that are taking place shortly.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for reflecting the fact that there are some encouraging signs in the Zimbabwean economy. That economy was in a quite appalling position, even worse than the Weimar Republic some 80 years ago, but it is showing signs of some degree of recovery. That is why I mentioned the fact that public servants are being paid. But the country has a very long way to go.

Baroness Amos: My Lords—

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, if noble Lords are quick in asking questions, we can hear from the noble Lord and then from my noble friend.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the Minister speaks of an inclusive Government in Harare, but is not the problem that there are two parallel Governments? We are all anxious to help Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai but, at the moment, the ZANU-dominated police and army forces are attacking, arresting and reportedly killing people in the other party, which is supposed to be their friend and colleague. Is it not time that Zimbabwe’s neighbours, which all signed up to the global political agreement, should be pushed into being much more vigorous in correcting this situation and ensuring that the Government really work as a joint effort rather than one gang trying to murder its colleagues? That is an important change. Until that has happened, we can give aid and find that it is useless.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course the noble Lord is right. The Southern African Development Community brokered the new, inclusive power-sharing agreement and Government and has some responsibility for its success.

Lord Avebury: My Lords—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am really sorry, but we could not quite do it so we will have to move on.

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I indicate at this earliest opportunity that in the heat of the moment I omitted to declare my interest as a dairy farmer when posing my supplementary question to my noble friend. I apologise to the House for this failure.

11 Jun 2009 : Column 744

Business of the House

Timing of Debates

11.37 am

Moved By The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon)

Motion agreed.

Intelligence and Security Committee: Annual ReportCompanies Act 2006 (Accounts, Reports and Audit) Regulations 2009 Registrar of Companies and Applications for Striking Off Regulations 2009 Overseas Companies Regulations 2009 Limited Liability Partnerships (Application of Companies Act 2006) Regulations 2009 Companies Act 2006 (Part 35) (Consequential Amendments, Transitional Provisions and Savings) Order 2009

Motion to Refer to Grand Committee

Moved By The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon)

Motion agreed.

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Order of Consideration Motion

Moved By The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach)

Motion agreed.

House Committee

Motion to Agree

11.38 am

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, today the House is being invited to agree a protocol governing police access to the House

11 Jun 2009 : Column 745

of Lords. Noble Lords will recall that this difficult issue arose in the context of a police search of an MP’s office in the House of Commons.

Initially, the Leader of the House asked the Clerk of the Parliaments to submit a memorandum on the conditions governing police access to Parliament. This memorandum was placed in the Library of the House and noble Lords were asked to submit comments. The resulting draft protocol was approved by the Committee for Privileges and the House Committee.

The protocol is annexed to the report, but I will briefly set out its key provisions. In cases where the police seek access to the precincts in order to arrest a Member, Black Rod must be notified. Black Rod or the Yeoman Usher will accompany the police and an arrest will be made only in their presence. That will ensure that, in the making of the arrest, no breach of parliamentary privilege is committed. In cases where the police seek access to the precincts of the House in order to effect a search, and where a warrant may lawfully be required by the House authorities, a warrant must always be obtained.

Before admitting the police to the precincts to undertake a search, Black Rod, having consulted the Clerk of the Parliaments and my legal counsel, will seek the authority of the Lord Speaker. The Lord Speaker will consult, as appropriate, the Leader of the House and others. Any search of a Member’s office or belongings will proceed only in the presence of Black Rod or the Yeoman Usher. Where any material is covered by parliamentary privilege, the police shall be required to sign an undertaking to maintain the confidentiality of that material until any issue of privilege has been resolved.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that this protocol constitutes an appropriate system for dealing with any criminal investigation involving a Member of this House. On the one hand, it shows a willingness to comply fully with any criminal investigations being carried out by the police; on the other, it puts in place a robust and transparent system for ensuring that Members’ rights are respected and that parliamentary privilege is not breached. I beg to move.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees omitted one sentence. He read out from paragraph 5 of the protocol that,

“In cases where the police seek access to the precincts in order to arrest a Member, Black Rod must be notified”.

He then went on to paragraph 6. He left out the sentence:

“Black Rod will in turn notify the Lord Speaker”.

Was it not one of the major criticisms of what happened at the other end that the responsibility for it was left with the Serjeant at Arms, and that the Speaker of the House of Commons somehow managed to avoid any responsibility for what had happened? Is it not of the utmost importance that, in matters of this significance to the functions of the House and the duties of its Members, it must be a Member of the House—in this case, the Lord Speaker—who authorises the police to come in? It should not be left to an Officer.

11 Jun 2009 : Column 746

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I shall not comment on what happened in another place. I would only repeat my original remark that the Lord Speaker is the person who has to give authority for this. Ultimately, it is up to the Lord Speaker and no one else.

Motion agreed.

Constitutional Renewal


11.41 am

Moved By Lord Tyler

Lord Tyler: My Lords, in moving this Motion, I must first congratulate the Minister, who is now in his place. He is obviously a man of great influence and power. When preparing for a debate of this sort, Ministers normally rely entirely on officials in their departments, but in his case he persuaded the Prime Minister to produce the briefing that was published yesterday. What amazing timing. In this debate, we shall be touching on issues of considerable concern not just to Members of your Lordships’ House but to the public at large, and therefore it is very timely.

The Government have been talking about constitutional reform and renewal ever since they took office. Indeed, the Prime Minister was talking about it again yesterday. Yet Ministers seem to use the reform agenda as a sort of rhetorical JCB; when in a hole, they dig even further down. Talk is cheap, and yesterday we had yet more from the Prime Minister, but the present House of Commons is on course for five more years of illegitimacy if the present system is allowed to continue. Why should people trust in a Parliament any more than they trust in this one if, just as happened at the last general election, not one single Member of Parliament enjoyed majority support among his or her constituents? That is a dire prospectus for democracy.

The Prime Minister has now promised, again, a constitutional renewal Bill. From what he said yesterday, it will do little of any substance whatever. Your Lordships will recall that, at the end of March, I brought before the House and obtained a First Reading of my own Constitutional Renewal Bill, so Mr Brown’s version will rightly be known as the “Constitutional Renewal (No. 2) Bill”—how apt for a Bill which promises to be second choice and second-rate. I published my Bill because I gave up on the long, long period when we were awaiting the Government’s proposals. Their first draft dodged the big issues and mainly sought to enshrine outdated conventions in modern statute. Ministers promised improvements; none came, and it looks like none will. So today, I want to address some of the issues that are in my Bill—the real thing—rather than the Government’s likely pale imitation.

My Bill deliberately does not refer to the two big issues on which the Government have made some progress—Lords reform and party funding. The agreed package across the parties on the former will, I hope,

11 Jun 2009 : Column 747

come forward, and the Government will implement that in the next few months. Meanwhile, we will be voting next week on the issues that are raised by party funding. My noble friends will deal with specific issues of reform, but my Bill concentrates on those issues on which the Prime Minister has made promises, as have many other Members of the Government, but failed to deliver. There is nothing in my Bill that Labour has not itself suggested should happen, and now is an opportunity to investigate the delivery.

The first is the engine of democracy—the electoral system. The arguments about the defects and the features of the present system are well rehearsed and have been for many years. It is an absolute subversion of democracy for any Government to win a majority in the House of Commons with such a small minority of the vote in the country. The present Government enjoy just 35 per cent support among those who voted and only 22 per cent among those entitled to vote. That scarcely gives them legitimacy.

There is therefore an unanswerable case for change. I defy anyone to tell me that the system is fair or that it gives the voter real power. It is not and it does not. Indeed, the current first-past-the-post system offers the elector party lists, each with only one name on it—no real choice whatever. The solution is surely too important to be left to self-interested parties and politicians: the public must have a role in the decision-making. My Bill would pave the way for electoral reform, first, by fixing the dates on which elections could be held at strictly four-year intervals and then by providing for a citizens’ assembly to determine the voting system that should be used for elections to the House of Commons. It would not be just another committee or commission of the great and good, but a genuinely public process effectively subjecting our present system and the alternatives to a real jury trial. It would be a public choice and the assembly’s conclusion could then be put to a national referendum so that any new system would have broad support from the population at large.

The process could be swift. If we willed it, reforms could be in place in this Parliament, but clearly we would have to start now. I am confident that, like the Power inquiry, which was chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, citizens would choose the system that gave them the most choice among candidates not just between parties; namely, the single transferable vote. There is the fundamental issue. How do we elect our House of Commons and thereby choose and give our confidence to a Prime Minister. What then? What powers should the Prime Minister enjoy? Members of your Lordships' House will be well aware of the comments made by Andrew Rawnsley, a respected commentator. He said:

“Within his own universe, no democratic leader is potentially more powerful than a British Prime Minister with a reliable parliamentary majority and an obedient Cabinet”.

The present Prime Minister may not remember what it is like to have a reliable parliamentary majority let alone an obedient Cabinet, but the point stands. Gordon Brown promised to surrender or limit many of the powers at his disposal. He has not: my Bill would. It would put on a statutory basis the right of this House and the other place to ratify international treaties

11 Jun 2009 : Column 748

and other important international agreements such as the star wars deal between this country and our partners.

Then there is the right to go to war—the gravest of decisions for any Government or nation to take—which should surely be firmly on the statute book. Ministers should have to have the support of MPs to commit the nation's troops to armed conflict. Noble Lords will doubtless have in mind that critical vote in the other place that took this country to war in Iraq. I was there. It was a genuine time of debate and an agonising one for all sides the House, particularly on the Government side. However, we learnt subsequently that the case for war was found wanting and advice confirming the legality of that action was altered at the last minute. The former Attorney-General, who gave the advice, was a Member of the Government and it was his final opinion that suited the political case that enabled the Government to make war. It seems that he who appoints the piper plays the tune. These are serious allegations but they come from the highest level in the Attorney-General’s office.

The only answer is transparency. My Bill would bring to an end a system of advice permeated with political prejudice, riddled with secrecy and rightly discredited as a result. Any legal advice used in support of a political case put to both Houses of Parliament should be published for MPs and Members of your Lordships’ House to see and address.

Meanwhile, the role of the Attorney-General clearly needs to change. The Prime Minister himself said so in July 2007. He was right then and he is right now. Yet the Government’s own proposals are feeble. They contradict the views of the two cross-party Commons Select Committees, with their Labour majorities. My Bill tackles this issue head on, separating the office of Attorney-General entirely from any ministerial position or responsibility.

Next there is the issue of the Civil Service. In July 2007, the Prime Minister said that,

The only problem is that they have not. He spoke in the past tense about something that he has yet to do. My Bill would put these measures in place and would cap the number of Damian McBrides—the special advisers—that taxpayers fund for their political radars rather than for their expertise.

I know that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill has additional proposals in his executive powers and Civil Service Bill. I hope he will be able to contribute to our debate today. Surely the Government should be listening to his suggestions now.

Finally, my Bill addresses the issue of the moment: the conduct of parliamentarians and the public’s loss of trust in our politicians. Some may say that constitutional reform is being used as a shield for a political class which claims that it is the system, rather than individuals, that is at fault. The truth is that it is both. There are a few unscrupulous individuals in British politics—precious few—but the whole way we do British politics is itself unscrupulous. It would be unsatisfactory in and of itself, even if every politician was an angel.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page